New York State In-depth

Buffalo Blizzard death toll rises due to delays in emergency response

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The death toll from Buffalo’s historic blizzard has risen to 47 after Erie County officials said a delayed emergency response could have contributed to the deaths of three more people.

Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz said on Twitter Thursday that three residents died after heart events were observed by friends or family members, but emergency responders were unable to get to them because of the severe weather. One person died on Christmas Eve in Cheektowaga, another on Christmas in Amherst, about 10 minutes away, and the third on December 27 in Buffalo.

A total of seven people died due to what officials have described as the delayed EMS response. The majority of the dead in Erie County were found outside or in their cars, and 26 of the 46 were black. Another person died in Niagara County.

In three other cases, the coroner is still waiting to confirm the manner of death, Poloncarz said, so the death toll could rise.

Buffalo, which suffered the worst damage and deadliest, has been the scene of ongoing protests as residents continue to demand accountability for the inadequate preparation, response and poor leadership of their mayor and other officials. The chaos that ensued during and after the historic storm sparked a backlash over emergency preparedness processes, the budget, and the city’s lack of involvement in county planning.

The city, the second largest in the country, has not had an official emergency manager for years.

Part of an emergency manager’s job is to create procedures for responding to natural disasters and other emergencies. They usually lead the response during and after emergencies, confining and organizing all public safety officers, first responders, agencies, and other government agencies involved in the incident.

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This is a crucial leadership position, especially for a city with two major sports teams, a university constantly plagued by severe, life-threatening weather events. The city also doesn’t have an emergency or preparedness section on its website, which would make it difficult for residents to find helpful information.

Before, during, and after a major disaster, the emergency manager and other high-level officials usually meet at the emergency response center, along with stakeholders from various agencies — such as utilities, the fire department, and other public safety agencies — to relay real-time information.

A former county official, who spoke to the Washington Post on condition of anonymity, said the city’s lack of involvement and communication was not new, confirming that Buffalo has consistently not been involved in the county’s emergency response response to other previous storms.

“Getting together in this way is life-saving because information is shared immediately,” said the former district worker. “The city was not present there, nor does the city have its own version. That would have helped to react early and make decisions.”

Without an official emergency manager, the city’s fire commissioner, William Renaldo, has taken on these duties. However, Renaldo took a pre-planned vacation during the snowstorm, a decision that has frustrated some in the department.

“The Buffalo Fire Department Commissioner is currently the coordinator for emergency management. The City of Buffalo Emergency Management Coordinator elected to take a previously planned, per-permit vacation to Florida while an impending storm, which has since been classified as historic, swept through the city of Buffalo,” said Vinny Ventresca, president of Buffalo Professional Firefighters Local 282, told members of the Buffalo Common Council in a meeting Wednesday.

Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown and Renaldo have defended the city’s handling of the storm, saying they are adequately prepared. It was a disaster that only happens once in a generation, and no amount of equipment or plan could have made much of a difference, they both told council members and the media.

Brown recently proposed creating a “fleet manager” to oversee fire, police and public works vehicles. But that’s not enough for some city councillors, who have been calling for an official city manager for weeks.

In a letter to Mayor Brown requesting an investigation into Blizzard’s response, Fillmore County Council member Mitch Nowakowski pointed out that nearby cities have full-time emergency response managers as well as dispatch centers.

“To make the city safer from future human or natural disasters, disaster preparedness is critical.” He wrote, stating that “there were clear deficiencies in the emergency response to the December 2022 blizzard that must be addressed immediately. “

As criticism of the slow, indiscriminate response mounted over the past month, Poloncarz said in a news conference that the city did not attend any of the daily coordination meetings before or during the blizzard. He also called her reaction “embarrassing”.

Buffalo Blizzard fuels racial and class divides in a polarized city

One of the main problems was clearing and removing snow and stranded cars from the streets, preventing food deliveries and rescue crews from reaching local residents. Critics pointed out that the city’s 2022-2023 snow removal plan does not mention the word “blizzard.” Some of the devices have been around since 2005.

The Buffalo Police and Fire Department, which have saved hundreds of residents by rescuing them off the streets and housing them in their stations, have also spoken out about their city’s inadequate emergency planning and equipment.

Last week, about 100 union members from Buffalo’s fire, police and public works departments attended a Buffalo Common Council meeting to demand new equipment, something they have reportedly been demanding for years.

Ventresca has been particularly candid about the ailing resources and poor communications, telling lawmakers that road congestion, equipment failures and the weather have left firefighters unable to reach 911 calls as well as fires.

Since a large part of their work is EMS and their assignee was the technical emergency manager, Ventresca requested that they have the necessary resources for the cold season and “train for winter use”.

He, along with some other officials and lawmakers, blamed some of the deaths on “a lack of planning and operating with outdated and broken rigs, equipment and fire stations.”

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